Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment as Manchester United’s caretaker manager in December 2018 brought a wave of positivity back to the club. Solskjaer said all the right things.
He spoke of his desire to bring United back to their roots; to play the football of Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson. Attack, be bold, and develop from within. He then said the magic words that United fans love hearing. “Age doesn’t matter, if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.”
Things were great.
These days, things are not so good.
United can’t win. They’ve fallen to 12th in the table, partially thanks to injuries and bad finishing, but mostly due to a lack of creativity. They have no replacement for Paul Pogba’s vision. When it comes to creativity they’re relying on Jesse Lingard, which is not his strong suit, and Andreas Pereira, who also hasn’t been able to give them anything.
Game after game United are treated to the same players having the same lack of ideas. I’m a big fan of Solskjaer and the direction that he’s trying to take the the club (with a very long term view). But when the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing over and over again and hoping for a different result, well, it’s hard not to call him insane.
Meanwhile, Solskjaer continues talking up all the kids. He’s been full of praise for Angel Gomes, Tahith Chong, and James Garner. Earlier this year he said that Mason Greenwood was the best finisher at the club.
But two months into the season, despite a roster plagued by injuries and ineffectiveness, Mason Greenwood has yet to start a league game. Angel Gomes has played just nine Premier League minutes and didn’t even feature in the Carabao Cup match against Rochdale. Tahith Chong has only made three appearances this year, and James Garner has only made the match day squad twice.
When push comes to shove, Ole may be singing the kids’ praises, but he’s not playing them.
As much as we’d like him to, the answer is more complicated than that. United are currently suffering the consequences from years of a lack of investment in their academy in the early part of this decade. There’s a entire missed generation of players now aged 21-25 who would have come out of the academy and pushed for first team spots.
As I wrote a few weeks ago regarding Gomes and Chong, “I’ve got to be honest, at this juncture I’m not sure if the hype around these guys is because they’re that good or if it’s because they’re the best our academy has right now.”
It’s a fair question to ask. Gomes, Chong, and Greenwood are easily the most hyped players the United academy has had in awhile, but for an academy that took a major fall (the U23 side got relegated two years ago), does that make them that good? And more importantly, does that make them ready?
Mason Greenwood is. There’s a reason he’s started every cup match and is playing in the league. There’s a reason he’s the only one playing above his age range internationally (Chong has made four appearances for the Netherlands U21 side but was not called up for this month’s internationals).
There’s been a lot of hype about Gomes since he made his debut when he was just 16 years old. But over the next two years he only appeared three times. There are plenty of reasons for that; there’s the fact that José Mourinho rarely gives youth a chance, and then of course the fact that he was only 17-18 years old! When Solskjaer, who wanted nothing more than to play youth and reap the good PR that comes with it, took over and Gomes still couldn’t get a look, that told us what we needed to know. Quite simply, he wasn’t ready.
That’s the thing about these kids. They’re young — very young. Forget about skills for a minute. Physically, they’re still growing. It’s quite likely that their bodies can’t stand the rigors of the Premier League just yet. That’s certainly true for Garner, who’s position as a midfielder requires physical strength and an ability to read the game that comes over time.
That doesn’t mean they’re not going to be ready at some point this season. It’s only October. They’re at an age where bodies grow very quickly. They could be ready next week, they could be ready in January, they may not be ready until April, or even next year. Everyone is different, but that doesn’t mean it can’t happen.
Two years ago 17/18 year old Trent Alexander-Arnold played sporadically for Liverpool in the first half of the season. It wasn’t that he wasn’t good enough. It was simply that he wasn’t ready to play week in week out. By February, after a few months of growing, he was, and he was then Liverpool’s first choice right-back the whole second half of the season as they went all the way to the Champions League final.
It takes time.
Chong and Gomes are now in a precarious position. They’ve basically outgrown the academy level, but they’re not quite ready for the first team. Throwing them in to this team before they’re ready would probably only stunt their development. We’ve all heard it over the past few weeks that part of the reason United were so successful at blooding youth was because they had so many world class players around to set an example for them. You can’t say that about this team now.
Chong is a great winger, but his final ball needs a lot of work. Would he be better off going out on loan, playing senior football at a lower level and having fewer expectations? I’d bet he would. Part of the reason Chelsea have started as well as they have is because their youth players, specifically Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, were loaned out so successfully.
That’s another area where United’s academy has failed. With the lack of players developing, there’s been a lack of players going out on loan in recent years. Axel Tuanzebe spent the past two seasons out on loan and look at him now, but he’s basically the only one. While Gomes, Chong, and probably even Garner would benefit from being on loan, United’s squad is so thin that they can’t afford to lose them.
Considering that United’s current number 10 position is a black hole for creativity, it’s understandable that the fans want to see Gomes now. Gomes’ first start this year came in the Europa League against Astana. I thought he was really good that game, possibly United’s best player, and deserved to be getting more playing time than he was.
But there’s a difference between being good against Astana and forcing your way into the regular XI. For example, scoring a brace against Midtjylland, then backing it up by scoring a brace against Arsenal and then scoring against City two games later. Or, scoring against Liverpool then bagging a brace against Southampton in the following match. For as good as Gomes was that night, he — nor any of the other young players — have yet to make the kind of undeniable impact that the likes of Rashford and Martial did when they first broke through.
Everything I just wrote may be a valid reason for not giving the kids more chances, but that doesn’t absolve Solskjaer just yet.
This season is about rebuilding and assessing the squad. Seeing as Gomes, Chong, and Greenwood haven’t made themselves undroppable, Solskjaer had to give a chance to his veteran players to hold down their spots. He owes it to them — that’s simple man management. As much as we know that Nemanja Matić and Juan Mata’s legs have gone, they’re veterans that this team will need this season and you can’t just drop them after one bad game.
Now that we’re 11 games in, things are different. Matić, Pereira, Lingard, and Mata have given the team nothing. They’ve proven that right now they are not the guys.
Solskjaer needs to lose his fear of playing the youngsters in league games. In fact, he may have even cost his team the Newcastle match when he chose to replace the injured Diogo Dalot with Marcos Rojo, instead of teenager Brandon Williams who had played brilliantly in the Carabao Cup and Europa League. Going to Rojo over Williams resulted in United shaking up their back line, causing ramifications to their play that Michael Cox brilliantly summed up in The Athletic:
Interestingly, United’s defensive reorganisation after 60 minutes harmed their passing. Right-back Diogo Dalot departed, with Marcos Rojo introduced in his place. The Argentine is a left-footed centre-back, so this meant Tuanzebe moving from centre-back to right-back, Maguire moving from the left to the right of the centre-back pairing and Rojo playing alongside him.
But Maguire wasn’t anywhere near as effective with his distribution towards the right. Whereas most centre-backs favour playing on their ‘natural’ side, he excels from the left-sided role because he can check inside slightly, and play penetrative forward passes. From the right of the partnership, he was tempted into somewhat aimless long diagonal balls. Now, Manchester United penetrated Newcastle’s midfield even less.
United need a spark. It’s time for Ole to turn to his youth. I’m not saying he needs to do it every match. They’re not ready for that. But they need to play just often enough that players like Pereira, Lingard, and Rashford know that they can be dropped. They need to strip away the complacency that’s developing in their games when they think there’s no one coming to take their spot.
The worst thing that happens is the youth simply isn’t better than what United currently have. In that case United then know what else they need to look for in the transfer market.
Hopefully that’s not what happens. Hopefully someone like Angel Gomes or Mason Greenwood can provide United that jolt that they need. And if not, then hopefully they send a message to the current squad that their places aren’t untouchable and the increased squad competition leads to the more senior players getting their form back.
It’s understandable why Ole Solskjaer has been hesitant with the youth so far this season, but now it’s time to change.